Nobody likes a traffic jam. Sitting in traffic, waiting for someone to move so you can get on your way. Yeah, not the best way to spend your time.
Traffic jams are a little different on the road over Engineer Pass. You see, the Alpine Loop byway gets pretty narrow, steep and rough as you go along, and traffic jams are more likely to be impasses. You’re going up, and someone else is going down. And the narrowness of the road (I use the word “road” loosely here) won’t allow two-way passage.
What to do? Slam it in reverse, back up slowly and carefully (those dropoffs are a doozy) and find a wider pullout to let the other driver through.
Traffic jam solved, and two drivers going opposite ways happily bounce along in first gear/four-wheel drive.
Did I mention the whole thing about first gear? As in, the road over Engineer Pass and Cinnamon Pass is so rough that the Jeep I was driving didn’t get out of first gear for about 65 percent of the five-hour drive. And I was totally OK with that.
The Alpine Loop winds its way through miles of high country deep in the San Juan range of southwestern Colorado. I started the drive in Lake City, a small town an hour south of Gunnison. Both passes I drove topped out at 12,800 feet or higher. From Engineer Pass, sweeping views of Uncompahgre, Matterhorn and Wetterhorn peaks greeted me and my passenger/climbing buddy Johnny Hunter. To the west, Mount Sneffles and its spiny ridge. And to the south, miles and miles of high summits graced with early autumn snows.
Lower on the road (and cruising somewhere between 5 and 10 mph), the road takes you through a mix of pine and aspen forests. At this time of year, the aspens have lost their green, trading it in for brilliant yellows and fiery oranges. The contrast of those colors with the greens of the pines, the blue in the sky and the occasional puff of white clouds is stunning. Still lower I drove, and opening up to the side of the road were deep, rocky gorges. Somewhere down there, a couple of hundred of feet down, a snow-fed river keeps carving into the rock, making the gash in the earth just a little deeper every day. I can’t hear it roaring, however. Not with all the jostling of the jeep as it crawls slowly over the one-lane path that bears a strange resemblance to Bolivia’s El Camino Muerto, the infamous road of death that seems to claim a bus or two every year.
Not that I think we’re going to hurtling over the edge anytime soon. The Jeep is pretty small, and everyone obeys those unwritten mountain road rules pretty well.
The scene of the day comes late in the afternoon, approaching American Basin. High above the basin is a jagged ridgeline, stubbornly holding on to snow that pounded the range just a week before.
Back at home, we drive past less spectacular scenery every day at 70 mph, not really noticing what may be out there. I’m not going to compare what I see on my daily commute to the majesty of the Rocky Mountains. And certainly traffic jams on Interstate 40 are nothing like meeting another four-wheeler head-on along a rural mountain byway. But slowing things down sure helped me take it all in.
We hurry a lot. Multitask a lot. When you’re forced to slow down, however, purpose becomes more focused. Distractions fade as you’re compelled to concentrate on the road. That’s when you can see the world as it is at that time. Not in a blur, but as it is.